Steven den Beste and Ubu Roi have been conducting a spirited debate on their blogs about Shakugan no Shana. (Ubu’s posts are here and here; Steven doesn’t have permalinks for his posts but you can read his review here.)
To summarize and oversimplify: Steven was initially enthralled by the horror/adventure story, but was greatly annoyed by the inclusion of “high school angst.” Ubu agreed that “angst” is bad but argued that the adventure story is only background; the “real” story is about Shana’s character development and personal growth. (I agree with Ubu, but most people are going to watch it for the adventure story. The personal growth story takes extra effort to follow since Shana and several of the other key characters are not open about their feelings.)
But this got me interested in the whole question of “angst”. Practically everyone who writes about anime (or at least every male who writes about anime) agrees that this is a bad thing. But what is it exactly, and what is so bad about it?
In Shana it involves characters obsessing about their love lives while apocalyptic events are going on. So maybe it’s fair to say that “angst” involves characters getting emotional and obsessive about things that the reviewer considers unimportant. And perhaps we should say that this is something that anime writers should avoid.
But real teenagers do obsess constantly about their love lives, and most adults observing them would say that they are being stupid and totally lack any sense of proportion. Then the same adults, often enough, go out and do something equally stupid. A teenaged girl may eat a gallon of ice cream because she can’t get a date. A 40 year old man may get so upset that his wife has left him that he goes out and does something that earns him a long prison sentence.
These irrational feeling are part of the human condition. To a large extent our character is defined not by whether we feel them, but by how well we deal with them.
Thus I don’t think that we should make a rule that “angst is bad.” It would be difficult to write a story involving significant character development without some angst. Yes these feelings are stupid, but it is through dealing with stupid miserable feelings that real people really do develop their characters.
This shouldn’t be a carte blanche. Obviously there can be “bad angst.” I can think of cases where it caused me to feel contempt for a character that I was supposed to sympathize with. (I try to make allowances for a character’s youth and inexperience, but I will only go so far.) Even if it doesn’t make us hate the character, if it fails to advance the the story by leading to some real character development, then it is merely an imposition on the audience. (Perhaps there are viewers who enjoy this sort of thing and consider it an end in itself; but I can’t speak for them.)
To get back to the original topic, in the case of Shana I think the angst is largely justified because it advances the character development. In particular it motivates Shana to work harder at becoming human. Your mileage may vary.